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Which direction should we face when praying at Mass? (Part 2)

Father Kevin M. Smith, pastor of Our Lady of the Snow Parish in Blue Point, N.Y., celebrates Mass Aug. 25, 2021. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)


This is the sixth in a series of articles exploring the gift and promise of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms.

One of the benefits of writing a monthly column is that you have time to dialogue with readers around the world. The previous column — on posture in liturgical prayer — generated a good deal of correspondence, which I want to attend to.

To remind the reader, those postures include the priest facing toward the East when addressing God at Mass or the priest facing toward the people during such prayer — what is called ad orientem (toward the East) and versus populum (toward the people) worship.

In the previous column, I claimed that both postures are needed. This point needs nuance, as my interlocutors have pointed out.

What the Church prefers

While the Second Vatican Council allows both postures (and must lest architectural destruction unfold in many churches), versus populum worship is the desirable posture. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal notes that altars “should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible [my emphasis]” (No. 299).

The reason for this preference, as noted in the last column, is the centrality of the altar. Versus populum worship is poorly named, focusing primarily on the posture of the priest rather than the entire worshiping body. The worship is a common turning toward the altar, where the Church remembers the sacrifice of Christ, fixes her gaze toward the hidden Christ upon the altar under the appearance of bread and wine, and experiences the foretaste of the beatific vision together with the communion of the visible and invisible Church.

This common turning toward the altar is not a novel practice. Mass was celebrated this way both in the early and early medieval Church. Further, this posture signifies the liturgical and sacramental ecclesiology reclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. It is the entire People of God who offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, albeit in a way that is hierarchically ordered.

Such worship is an authentic expression of the heavenly worship in the Book of Revelation. The saints turn their eyes to the Lamb once slain upon the altar, a holy people made holy because of the sacrifice of Christ that draws all to the supper of the Lamb.

For this reason, the Church’s instruction on the Mass prefers versus populum worship. It is not this posture that produces talk-show style priests. It is not this posture that led people to cease believing in the Eucharistic presence of Our Lord. Rather, it is a poor formation of priests, who sometimes (whether facing toward the people or toward the East) make the liturgy about themselves.

Looking to the East

Now, where does this leave as a posture? Must it be abandoned?

In fact, the Church does not require total abandonment of the posture. As already noted, there are altars that are built against a wall. In such places, the Mass will be celebrated ad orientem.

Traditional Latin Mass. Wikimedia Commons

But does this mean that ad orientem worship must be reserved exclusively to such altars? Is there any possibility of understanding ad orientem worship according to the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council?

For some, the answer is no. Ad orientem worship expresses a different ecclesiology from Vatican II. Therefore, when it is practiced, there are two separate ritual understandings of the Church operative in the Church. Such practice leads to disunity rather than unity.

Pastorally, I understand this perspective. Many priests have forced ad orientem worship upon unwilling assemblies. Further, these same priests introduced this practice as “better” than versus populum worship, tending to rely on bad history and theology alike.

On the other hand, theologically, I see such a claim as introducing significant problems. After all, most Eastern Catholics face ad orientem. Does this mean that their ecclesiology is incongruent with Latin-rite Catholics with whom they are in communion?

The problem, in the end, is the assumption that a specific liturgical practice carries with it a theological assertion. Because we face one direction or the other in prayer, that means that we believe x, y or z.

Sometimes this is true. If a Catholic regularly attends benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, that Catholic probably believes in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist even if he or she cannot articulate that belief completely.

Sometimes it isn’t true. Some Anglican and Episcopalian priests, for example, take up the ad orientem posture in their prayer. Does this mean that they now possess a late medieval understanding or Tridentine understanding of the Church? Having friends in these communities, the answer is no.

Simply, the relationship between liturgical practice and theological knowledge is more complicated.

Both are possible

What does this mean for ad orientem worship? Is there a place for such worship in the post-conciliar Church?

My answer is yes, with the following significant provisos.

First, such worship cannot be understood as better than versus populum worship. It cannot be understood as the way to save the Church from secularization. If a priest finds praying ad orientem more fruitful than versus populum, it’s time to make an adjustment. This prayer isn’t your prayer. It’s the prayer that you’re offering on the part of Christ and the Church. Learn to find versus populum worship fruitful, turning your eyes toward the altar along with the assembly. This is what Pope Francis is requiring the whole Church to do right now.

Second, versus populum worship must be understood aright. Liturgical abuse occurs when versus populum worship is overtaken by an implicit clericalism in which the priest becomes the center of attention. Avoiding that risk means that all priests must learn to pray the Mass better, understanding liturgical leadership more in the line of John the Baptist. You must recede, so that Christ may become the focal point of our common prayer.

Third, we could begin to understand ad orientem worship according to the rich theological and pastoral insights of the 20th-century liturgical movement. Practices can change their meaning over time. And when ad orientem worship is carried out in new contexts, new meanings can develop.

For example, could a parish celebrate such worship during Advent as a way in which the entire People of God turn toward the symbolic East as a way of preparing for the coming of Our Lord? Will this practice eventually shape the way that ad orientem worship is understood?

I may be rather naive, but I believe that it’s possible to have two postures for Eucharistic praying in the Church, while affirming everything about Vatican II and remaining in unity with my brother or sister who prays in another way. I see this as perhaps a space that Vatican II opened in the first place, one where the entire human family could be called toward a unity that does not erase difference.

Now, such an assumption requires a total embrace of the conciliar reforms by everyone and, concurrently, presuming the goodwill of those who take up a different posture than the one I do during my prayer.

In the next column, I shall do exactly this, examining why dimensions of the old Mass are attractive to my colleagues and students today.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

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